Echolalia derives from the Greek words “echo” meaning “sound,” and “lalia” meaning “a form of speech.” In Greek mythology, Echo is a nymph, an unfortunate victim of Zeus’ jealous wife, Hera, who is punished by Hera and no longer able to use her voice except in the form of echolalia. Echolalia refers to speech in stock phrases that simply involves copying and repeating another person’s utterance word for word. For example, a child might immediately repeat out loud his mother’s utterance “Drink your milk” at the dinner table, or a child might say “Trix are for kids” over and over again, repeating something he or she had obviously heard on TV the day before.
Five stages of expressive speech have been identified in early linguistic development: isolated sounds, syllabic utterances, awareness of one’s sounds, echolalia, and flexible production of meaningful words in context. Echolalia is considered by some to be a normal developmental occurrence in typical language acquisition. During the echolalic stage, infants characteristically repeat their caregiver’s words, which may serve the function of rehearsal and practice for words and language. In typically developing children, echolalia peaks between 2 and 3 years of age, and then decreases. In this context, the term echolalia refers to a typical developmental phenomenon that occurs for a brief period of time during the course of some children’s linguistic maturation.
Although echolalia may refer sometimes to a developmental stage in normal speech acquisition, the term is more commonly used to refer to a peculiar and common characteristic displayed by a variety of special needs children experiencing atypical development. In this context, echolalia refers to the apparently noncommunicative and meaningless repetition of another person’s vocalizations, commonly found in children diagnosed with various disorders, such as autism, mental retardation, schizophrenia, Gilles de la Tourette syndrome, aphasia, and dementia. Among some children with autistic spectrum disorders who are verbal, echolalia is the only form of speech available to them. For other high-functioning autistic children, echolalic utterances appear sporadically together with more meaningful generative speech.
In these special populations, echolalia is typically displayed with more rigidity, less melodic intonation, and more persistence than that of normal children. Echolalia can be either immediate (i.e., repetition of someone else’s words just spoken) or delayed (i.e., repetition of words or sentences after considerable time has elapsed). Also, the utterances repeated can also come from TV or from other media, rather than originating from face-to-face human interaction.
There is debate over the functions of echolalia for children with autistic spectrum disorders and other special needs. Some researchers believe that echolalia has no meaning for many autistic children and that it does not represent an attempt to communicate. Others think echolalia is a way for a child without many language skills to express their lack of comprehension. For some autistic children, echolalic speech is all they have and it does appear to be used at least at times to initiate and maintain social interaction or to regulate one’s own actions. For example, a mother may ask the child to say hello: “Say hello, Jim,” at which point the child repeats, “Say hello, Jim” and this is the best greeting Jim can produce. The difficult task for family members with a predominantly echolalic child, of course, is to figure
out what the child’s echoed utterances might mean. One typically needs to consider both the present situation and many prior contexts of the message being echoed.
In both typical and atypical populations, as language improves, echolalia diminishes by itself. Therefore, the majority of interventions for persistent echolalia in special populations have focused primarily on improving the quality of the child’s general expressive speech, rather than discouraging echolalia specifically.
- Frith, U. (1989). Autism: Explaining the enigma. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
- Heffner, G. J. (2000). Echolalia and autism. Retrieved from http://groups.msn.com/TheAutismHomePage/echolaliafmsnw
- Heffner, G. J. (2000). Treating echolalia. Retrieved from http://groups.msn.com/TheAutismHomePage/treatingmsnw
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